The world of work is never far away in Joshua Ferris’ fiction: “I need my characters to have jobs,” he has said, “in order to feel real to me.” His first novel. And Then We Came to the End, was set in an advertising agency and famously used a first-person-plural narrative to give voice to its office setting. His second, The Unnamed, featured a lawyer who, in the middle of his superficially comfortable and contented life, is compelled to walk as if in search or escape. Where a certain amount of coolness still clings to those particular careers, Ferris’ latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is set in a dentist’s surgery, an occupation which, for all its financial reward, rarely features among dream jobs. It, too, is concerned with the anxieties of modern life, and the search for contentment and belonging.
Its narrator, Paul O’Rourke, is another character who superficially seems to have it made, running a successful dentist practice and, in his own words, “raking in tons and tons of money.” The only thing his practice lacks is a private office, a decision O’Rourke took to allow him an extra surgery, but perhaps also subconsciously reflecting a fear of being physically alone which would emphasise his loneliness and uncertainty of his own identity. His life has so far consisted of a series of obsessive interests and relationships in which he has invested the hope of happiness, only to discover:
“Everything was always something, but something – and here was the rub – could never be everything.”
His relationships fail not simply because he immediately throws himself into them with an all-consuming love for the woman in question, but because that love includes her family and her family religion. His most recent girlfriend, Connie, (who still works for the practice as office manager), is Jewish and his relationship with her saw Paul develop a fascination for Judaism just as he had previously for Catholicism when he was dating the Catholic Samantha. All his own father left him by way of religion was the Red Sox. What Paul envies about Catholics and Jews is not their belief (he is an atheist) but their sense of community, a sense of belonging he sees in the families of his girlfriends. This contrasts sharply with his own feelings:
“You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.”
In order to explore O’Rourke’s relationship with religion, Ferris invents his own; Ulmism, like Judaism, is an inherited religion which can supposedly be traced back to an ancient people mentioned in the Bible. O’Rourke first encounters Ulmism through what Ferris has described as “a force of anxiety… a hall of mirrors with diminishing returns”, the internet. An unauthorised website for his dental practice is soon followed by a Twitter account in his name which proselytises Ulm beliefs. Initially both disturbed and angry, O’Rourke is advised there is little he can do. He opens up communication with an e-mail address linked to the impersonation, initially to complain, but soon debating ideas of belief and identity.
Ferris has spoken about how the internet “creates a second world, a second reality,” something that is not dissimilar to religion, and here he conflates the two, while confronting the issue of what distinguishes a cult from a religion. Ultimately, he leaves this question unanswered, Ulmism bringing both hope and despair to characters – the fact that its central precept is to doubt God seems important here.
This makes To Rise Again at a Decent Hour sound a very serious book, but in keeping, with Ferris’ previous work, there is a lot of humour in it. I particularly liked the one-sided conversations he uses to emphasise O’Rourke’s isolation:
“’Why must you always be reading your phone?’ I’d tell her, she’d say, ‘If you know it’s merely a distraction from the many things you don’t want to think about, why let yourself be a slave to it?’ I’d tell her, she’d say, ‘That’s the most blasphemous thing I’ve ever heard.’”
There’s an echo of this later when he visits his mother in a Home for the Elderly, this time without the humour:
“’Remember when I couldn’t sleep?’ No Response. ‘Dad died and I couldn’t sleep?’ No response.”
Generally the novels tilts between tragedy and farce with different readers no doubt responding in different ways.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is probably my least favourite Joshua Ferris novel – a pity as the Booker short-listing will likely bring him new readers. The set-up is excellent, particularly the use of the internet and the establishment of O’Rourke’s character. Ferris has a great knack for identifying the anxieties of modern life and exploring them through everyman characters. However, I felt the resolution was a long time coming and not entirely convincing. I think that this is in part because Ferris’ novels often seem to be heading in allegorical direction before he roughly drags them back onto the path of realism. Despite this, Ferris is important voice in contemporary American literature and should not be ignored.